Across the Arab world, mass protests have emerged with a ferocity and urgency the world has almost forgotten since the days of the cold war. In Egypt, protesters thronged the streets, defied curfews, and stormed the Interior Ministry building in Cairo, the most powerful symbol of President Hosni Mubarak’s control.
While the scale of protests and subsequent government response have differed across countries, one thing has been clear – they all looked to the success of this month's revolution in Tunisia as proof that they, too, could be rid of their own dictators.
IN PICTURES: Egyptian protests
We are at a turning point. The world is changing, and America cannot afford to remain on the sidelines for much longer. The Obama administration appears caught in a precarious balancing act of foreign policy, simultaneously attempting dual responses – one of support for a dictator that has served as a stable US ally in an often unstable region, the other of support for a people’s rebellion for freedom and democracy. The mixed messages have left many wondering whose side the United States is actually on. The answer we send to the Arab world at this critical juncture may not only decide our standing in the region, but the future of America’s character and constitution.
Protests erupt in defiance of regimes
Sparked by a month's worth of protests by the Tunisian people, which culminated in the exile of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, other Arab states immediately took notice, and began nervous preparations. Some tried to suddenly increase subsidies and lower prices of food and other necessities, in hopes of effectively bribing the discontented. Others geared up police forces and began to anticipate their own uprisings.
But protests have still erupted this month in Yemen, Oman, Jordan, Mauritania, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. In Egypt, as military helicopters and jets screamed overhead, what began as a spontaneous eruption of emotion began to take structure. Formerly-exiled leader and Nobel Prize Winner Mohamed ElBaradei won the support of a coalition of opposition groups and began to speak on behalf of the uprising.
Relics of monarchies
For all their trappings of modern nation-states – embassies, government ministries, tall buildings, and flashy sports teams, we have forgotten that many Arab states remain relics of a time long past – absolute monarchies. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was not a king in title, but what else can you call a man who has maintained a stranglehold on a nation for three decades, with plans (perhaps until last week) to pass power on to his son?
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father, winning over 90 percent of votes in questionable elections twice, both times running unopposed. Across the Middle East and North Africa, with few exceptions, dictators sit on thrones built upon censorship, political prisons, beatings and detention of journalists and dissidents, and severely restrained freedoms of speech, assembly, press, and religion.
And those who have been victim to these systems are reaching the limits of their patience.
'Strategic' interests and mixed messages
Foreign policy is a delicate art, and American "strategic" interests can sometimes call for partnerships with distasteful regimes and foreign leaders, particularly on security matters. But this nation may need to rethink the imagery it is projecting abroad to the masses of people still largely not free.
Though the Egyptian military has vowed not to fire on protesters and the Egyptian police force has withdrawn from the streets, if they were to again fire on protesters, chances are that they will be doing so with guns paid for by the US taxpayer, courtesy of more than $1.3 billion in military aid given to Egypt annually – the majority of its annual military budget. Mr. Mubarak has already sent US-licensed M1A1 Abrams Battle tanks rolling through Cairo, and US-built F-16 fighter jets made low-level passes over Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square on Sunday.
Top American leaders so far have said that they managed somehow to be on both the side of the Egyptian people and simultaneously the government, in an appalling indecisiveness that will be costly. President Barack Obama disappointingly refused last week to explicitly take sides, instead asking for both sides to avoid violence. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stopped at calling for “legitimate grievances” to be addressed, simply calling for “democratic and economic reform.”
No administration official went as far as to call for Mubarak to step down. There’s no question that there are legitimate concerns that, in a power vacuum, the Muslim Brotherhood may take power in Egypt, and gain momentum in its long push for a Islamist state. But even the Muslim Brotherhood has thrown its support behind the protesters explicitly, rallying behind emerging opposition leader Mr. ElBaradei – and America has not.
US may lose the security it seeks
What all this means is that whether Egyptian people succeed in ridding themselves of their nearly 30-year perpetual president, the people of Egypt will probably not count the Americans as friends – a stark, dramatic, and important point. And ironically, this moral ambivalence in the interests of stability may cost the United States the very security it’s seeking to protect.
Many of the dictators who are the targets of protests now have been welcomed in the White House, and honored with state visits, or fat, annual checks courtesy of the people of the United States. That is not to say that the United States should not engage in diplomatic relations at all with nations that have abhorrent human rights conditions. Relationships are necessary to leverage and press for democracy and reform, and economic incentives can help drive those points.
But without strong, concerted, and consistent messaging from the top – that America stands with those protesting because their children are starving and their youth are being beaten, one could not be blamed for thinking America is no longer leader of the free world. Despite being born of revolution itself, America has instead embraced those leaders in gilded palaces and gleaming jets, some of whom were installed by "the West" to begin with. Coupled with lingering doubts about American intentions related to Iraq, Guantanamo, and Abu Ghraib, increasingly it seems we can no longer be certain which team we're playing for.
What does US stand for?
This is an existential question. Does the United States exist as any nation does – simply to protect its own citizens, borders, and strategic interests? Or are we something more – a nation and people that considers, as President John F. Kennedy once said, "the survival and success of liberty" to be a foundational objective?
If we are the latter, it is without a doubt long overdue for America's political leaders and diplomats to name names, and stand overtly with these protesters. Such outspoken solidarity mattered in the 1980s in Warsaw and Bucharest, and matters all the more today, when media can carry the voices of our leaders across the globe instantly.
And these words matter equally for the galvanizing effect they can have on protesters, as they do for the simultaneously dispiriting effect they have on dictators with few remaining friends. Alternatively, indecisiveness in moments of crisis is equivalent to endorsing the status quo.
The sad truth is that in the coming weeks, many Americans will probably begin to forget about these brave protesters. We'll focus again on the coming Super Bowl, various movie releases, celebrity scandals, and all manner of distractions that flood our news media. We may find ourselves in a world with new, democratic governments in the Arab world. Or we may count Tunisia as the only survivor, for now.
But what our leaders say, and the message our nation projects abroad, will resonate long after the Super Bowl. The support we lend or withhold to democracy in the Arab world matters – both for the future of the region, and the future of America. What American leaders say, and the support they must give, can mean the difference between success and defeat, or life and death, in the streets of Cairo, Damascus, Sanaa, or Riyadh.
In 1806, Thomas Jefferson remarked in a letter to James Monroe that, “Political interest [can] never be separated in the long run from moral right.” Standing resolutely for these protesters in these struggles may see new, vibrant democracies emerge throughout the Arab world. Sitting on the sidelines in silence may cost us more than our standing in the Arab world; it will come at the cost of our own ideals.
Adrian Hong is the director of The Pegasus Project, a visiting associate professional specialist at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, and a senior fellow with TED, a non-profit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading.